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Marci Shore on Ukraine and revolution in real time

Octavian Report: What prompted you to write an intimate history of the Maidan?

Marci Shore: This is a book I never planned on writing. All the advantages historians have come from retrospect; it’s the looking-back that allows you play God, to know more than any individual actor could have known in real time. There is truth to Hegel’s idea that “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” It’s only looking back that we can understand the implications of actions and their consequences.

Here is the short version of how I became drawn in to this story: I was on leave in Vienna during the 2013-2014 academic year, at the Institute for Human Sciences. And even at that distance from Kyiv, it was impossible not to notice that in all the twenty-some years I had been hanging out in Eastern Europe, the Maidan was the most extraordinary thing I had seen in real time. It was the first real revolution since I had been coming there. I’ve known many people in Eastern Europe — people older than I am, many of whom are no longer alive — who had been through what in German are called Grenzerfahrungen — literally “border experiences”, be they Nazi camps or Soviet camps or Stalinist prison. People who had been forced to make life-or-death decisions in extreme circumstances. But these experiences had always been before my time, before I knew them. This was the first Grenzerfahrung I had watched friends experience in real time. And it was impossible to turn away from that.

OR:  How does what you saw in Ukraine reflect the broader ways in which intellectuals — major participants in the events on the Maidan — relate to or engage with politics?

Shore: This idea of the engagé intelligentsia, of course, has been controversial for a long time — i.e. should intellectuals get involved in politics or not? Tony Judt made that famous intervention in Past Imperfect where he attacked Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and other French intellectuals for being “fellow travelers” and Stalinist apologists after the Second World War.

There is a long tradition in Eastern Europe (and not only in Eastern Europe) of intellectuals playing the role of the “conscience of the nation.” Perhaps they have often made the wrong decisions (my first book, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, is about Polish avant-garde poets born around the fin de siècle who at a certain moment leap into the arms of communist revolution), but there was rarely an expectation that they would not get involved. The United States has professional academics with well-defined disciplines. Eastern Europe historically had, and still has, an idea of “intellectuals,” people who think and write and do not necessarily feel any obligation to remain within disciplinary boundaries. Traditionally, if you’re an intellectual in Warsaw or Lviv or Prague, you get to hang out in cafés and write poetry on napkins, but also delve into philosophy and write feuilletons for newspapers.

I have friends from the Balkans who experienced the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s. But in the parts of Eastern Europe I had spent time in — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine — I hadn’t seen the kind of violence that took place on the Maidan in all the years I had been coming here. There had been individual murders — of the Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze, for example — but not large-scale violence against the public. It was the first time I saw people I knew — friends and colleagues, people who I think of as being like myself, people I see at conferences, whose work I read, who read my work — making a decision to risk their lives. My Polish friend Ola Hnatiuk, for instance, is a professor of literature (she teaches at the university in both Warsaw and Kyiv) and a translator of Ukrainian literature into Polish. I think of Ola as someone who dresses in tailored clothing, who is petite and refined and speaks in an elegant literary language in all of the various languages she speaks. I wouldn’t have even imagined her raising her voice. The last time I’d seen her before the Maidan we were having breakfast together at a hotel in Washington. And suddenly Ola is out on the Maidan in the freezing cold crushing bricks to build barricades. And Ola is not the brick-crushing, barricade-building type. I had a sense of just how much she had to be pushed to decide to do that.

I was watching my friends and colleagues be transformed before my eyes. And I could not not be moved by that.

OR: What is it — beyond the taking up of arms — that changes a protest movement into an actual revolution?

Shore: That was one of the questions about what was happening in Ukraine that fascinated me: when does a protest cross an invisible border to become a revolution? In November 2013 no one expected this. No one was ready to die at the end of November. And by the end of January, people were ready to die.

By the time the sniper massacre began in February, you could feel — literally almost palpably — that a critical mass of people had made a decision, and they were willing to die there.

In the book I try to capture and understand that moment of decision-making. I try to understand revolution as experience, experience given to individuals. At a certain moment, for instance, people began talking about how they were losing track of time, they could no longer remember what had happened yesterday and what had happened two days ago or a week earlier. The distinction between night and day was effaced. People began to fear falling asleep — you’re afraid to fall asleep, because you can wake up an hour later and discover that everything, absolutely everything, has changed. I began to sense that this was part of the essence of revolution: at any given moment, the previously existing state of affairs could suddenly become meaningless. I began to explore questions like: does that change in the experience of temporality belong to the essence of revolution? What is particular and what is universal?

OR:  What did the actual participants want from Europe and the U.S.? What gestures or acts would have been meaningful or helpful to them?

Shore: Many people I talked to felt hurt and disappointed by the response, or rather the lack of response. But often I sensed that the disappointed expectations were less expectations of material support and more expectations of moral support, of attention, understanding, empathy. There was an article in Der Falter, which is a hip Austrian weekly a bit like the Village Voice. The title of the article used the phrase “the kids from Kiev.” It was a sympathetic article — sympathetic but somehow condescending.

My friend Martin Pollack, an Austrian writer and Slavicist who is significantly older than I am, remembers Solidarity in Poland well. He was very angry about the title of the Der Falter article. He wrote a letter to editor essentially saying: these people are being kidnapped and tortured, they’re risking their lives, you can’t call them “kids.”

I don’t think anyone on the Maidan expected foreign military intervention. But there was a widespread desire for more acknowledgment of what they were doing, what Hegel would call “recognition.” Putin and Yanukovych were disseminating the story that the Maidan is a CIA-sponsored Ukrainian fascist conspiracy. And the sad irony here is that those on the Maidan knew that not only was there no CIA-sponsored conspiracy, but on the contrary: they were hoping for some kind of expression of solidarity from us that was not forthcoming. American attention was elsewhere. More or less everyone’s attention was elsewhere.

At the same time, the Maidan was a moment of taking responsibility and a feat of self-organization. Nataliya Stelmakh, the manager of a shopping center, tells the story, “Already on 30 November, the very first day of the large and active protests, reporters from four Russian channels approached us, all of them asking who organized us and whether we got help from the United States. They simply could not grasp that we ourselves organized ourselves.”

When I began working on this project, I never thought of myself as someone who was going to mobilize Western support for the Maidan (which by then was essentially over, in any case). Rather I thought of myself as a potential cultural mediator who could perhaps convey the experience of the Maidan in a way that would help people to understand it.

People have asked my why didn’t I write more about Yanukovych, or why didn’t I write more about Putin, or why didn’t I write more about the people on the other side. And the answer is that I wasn’t confident that I understood them enough.  What goes on inside the mind of someone like Yanukovych (or Trump, for that matter), what story he tells himself to justify his behavior, what it means to be someone for whom other people’s lives have no meaning — I just don’t know. Of course we can never completely understand what is happening in someone else’s mind or soul. Nonetheless, there are degrees of understanding. I try not to be epistemologically presumptuous; the main protagonists of this book are people I feel I understand well enough to write about.

OR: One of the most interesting things that crops up on the Maidan is the surprising union of former political enemies. How do you see that experience playing out? What room can there be in a liberal, democratic order for anti-liberal, anti-democratic elements?

Shore: I went back to Kyiv after my friend Vasyl, a left-wing activist, was beaten up by a gang of young men connected to the nationalist group Svoboda. This was several months after the Maidan. And even having had that experience, having nearly been killed, having gone through surgeries to repair his face, Vasyl told me that he was a happy person for having once had that experience of authentic democracy. That when he had been there on the Maidan together with those guys from Svoboda, he could count on them not to turn against him.

That suspension of hostilities, that transcendence of previously existing political division, is one of the reasons I was so captivated. For the 25 years I’ve been coming to Eastern Europe, I’ve been listening to stories about Solidarity in Poland. In a sense I came of age intellectually under the mentorship of these Polish intellectuals who had gone through that experience in Solidarity: the miraculous coming together of the Left and the Right, the Marxists and the Catholics, the workers and the intellectuals, the Poles and the Jews.

Of course, this transcendence of previously-existing divisions lasts approximately 30 seconds after communism falls. But it was nonetheless a transformative experience for those who took part in it. And I saw how people like Adam Michnik and Konstanty Gebert, veterans of Solidarity, experienced some ecstatic moments watching the Maidan. They’re not at all naïve. They knew — and know — all too well that this coming together of people of all different sides is precarious and fragile and can never be sustained. But it nevertheless is an extraordinary moment that most people never experience in their lifetimes. It’s a moment that reveals a human capacity we might not otherwise ever know we possess.

OR: You quote in your book’s foreword a historian who says that with “the revolution of 2014, the post-modern ended in Ukraine, and we still do not know how to conceptualize this new reality.” What does that mean in the experiential terms in which the book is cast?

Shore: In some sense, the Maidan was also a kind of revolt against postmodern skepticism towards the existence of “truth” as such. Here in the United States we’re now experiencing (somewhat belatedly in comparison to Russia and Ukraine) “post-truth.” The “post-truth” cultivated by Putin came to play a more visible role in the aftermath of the Maidan, in the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas.

There was something about the Maidan that could almost be described as “post-postmodern”: a return to faith in truth, in empirical reality. And social media, which has so often been associated with the postmodern, was very much used on the Maidan in an attempt to assert the reality of the subject.

OR: What’s the mood there now?

Shore: I haven’t been back since May, so I don’t feel competent to answer that. But in general, the mood is not good. Ukraine is not doing well at the moment. Corruption remains entrenched. There’s widespread disillusion with Poroshenko. He’s not as brutal as Yanukovych, but he tends to be described as “the best of the worst.”

There are civic activists and people who had been on the Maidan and then entered government who have been working very hard on anti-corruption reform. But that seems to be a Herculean task. One thing I hadn’t really understood before the Maidan were the social and psychological dimensions of the corruption. In Ukrainian, there are at least two words for corruption: koruptsiya and prodazhnist’. If you translate the latter literally into English it’s “saleability” — the idea that not only everything, but also everyone can be bought.

The war has been deadly in more than the obvious ways. How can you focus on reforming the country when part of the country is at war? When there are a million and a half internally displaced people to be resettled? The war is grotesque — some 10,000 people have been killed and a million and a half people have become refugees essentially for nothing. People are being killed in fact for reasons that are fiction.

OR: What about the overall situation was really gotten wrong by outside observers — particularly by the press in Europe and in the U.S.?

Shore: Why, for example, was the Polish coverage of the Maidan so much better? It wasn’t just that the Poles were more sympathetic. They understood better what was happening. They understood, among other things, the very complex politics of provokatsiia, of provocation — which sounds very post-modern but belongs, in fact, to a political tradition that goes back at least to the 19th century czarist empire.

You might remember the Washington Post story [1] in the winter about a woman who was posing as a victim of Roy Moore in Alabama. She was actually working for Project Veritas as part of an operation designed to provoke the Washington Post into publishing a story that could then be exposed as fake.

When I read that story in the Washington Post, it felt so East European to me. It could have been set in Soviet times, or in the czarist empire — or on the Maidan. During the Maidan, Yanukovych was telling the Western press that the protestors on the Maidan were fascists and anti-Semites. He was telling his own riot police that these people were all Jews and homosexuals. I think that the Poles understood this — it’s part of a familiar playbook. But to generalize, it wasn’t something that Americans easily or naturally understood.

There was also, I think, a tendency to see Ukraine in particular and Eastern Europe in general in ethnolinguistic terms. One of the things I think foreigners often didn’t understand was the depth of bilingualism in Ukraine. As someone who’s spent time in Kyiv and experienced (with some jealousy) the seemingly effortless facility with which Ukrainians switch back and forth between languages, I knew that the Maidan was not about language politics.

The philosopher Taras Dobko from the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, whose primary language is Ukrainian, told me that it was in Kyiv, on the Maidan, that Russian became for him a language of freedom. Russian was as much a language of this revolution as Ukrainian was. This wasn’t a revolution about either language or ethnicity. This was really a revolt against what in Russian is called proizvol, meaning arbitrariness tinged with tyranny. It’s the sense that you are being rendered an object and not a subject, that you are a helpless plaything of the powers-that-be.

What “Europe” really came to represent on the Maidan was not the empirical, highly imperfect instantiation of the European Union, but rather the antithesis of proizvol. “Europe” meant the end of rule by gangsters. When once asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi answered, “It would be a very good thing.” This “would be a very good thing” was the Europe at stake on the Maidan; it represented human rights, the rule of law, the dignity of being treated as a human subject.

This human revolt against proizvol, that rage about being treated as an object and not as a subject, was at the heart of the existential transformation. One of my Polish historian friends said to me during the Maidan, “Subjectivity. . .Marci, I haven’t heard that word since the days of Solidarity.”